Every time Jamal James moved close, his kidney paid the price. Antonio DeMarco, a former champion, signaled his brawling strategy with every curling right hand.
The southpaw would attack James' lean frame, especially his ribs, leaving James' back looking as if he had stayed under a sun lamp too long.
To win this fight, James, the welterweight contender from Minneapolis, would have to accept punishment without abandoning his strengths: mobility, piercing jabs and dance-floor footwork.
So he waded in, took the shots, and countered with flurries, and by the end of the night the crowd at the Armory was shouting familiar slogans:
"Shango" — James' nickname. "Circle of Discipline" — James' gym. And "Where's my belt?" — James' current and increasingly relevant motto.
By peppering DeMarco and earning a unanimous decision Saturday night, in front of a loud crowd of 3,170 in downtown Minneapolis, James and his camp believe they have positioned themselves to fight for a championship.
James will fly to Las Vegas this week to appear at Manny Pacquiao's title fight against Keith Thurman on July 20 at the MGM Grand.
Is this the week that leads to a championship bout?
"I hope so," James said. "I'm coming for that title and I think they know it. And I think they just don't want to deal with me because I'm a problem. They know my range and my power is a problem. So they're going to try to make me earn it as much as possible.
"That's cool. I'm down for the challenge. But, yeah, I want that title shot. I need a belt."
James is 26-1 with 12 knockouts. His father figure and trainer, Sankara Frazier, patiently reminded him all night to avoid unnecessary punishment and "show the art."
"This was a good fight, the kind of fight you need to move up into that higher level of competition, and he handled it well," Frazier said. "There were times in there where he was making some moves that he shouldn't have made. But that happens when you're climbing.
"You get a little discombobulated sometimes, but he got right back on track. Now the next step is we go to Las Vegas, so they can see him there, and we'll see exactly who we're going to fight next."
A full card of fights was televised by FS1, meaning a national audience watched James prove he could take dozens of punches without flinching. "He jumped on me that one round, kind of had me on the ropes, caught me with a nice little shot, but I was able to shake it and then I answered right back," James said. "We practice that. I train with great fighters in the gym. Shout out to (sparring partner) Ve Shawn Owens, who got a victory tonight.
"That's just part of the game. You get hit, you can't lose your cool. You don't get mad, you get even."
James likes to say he prefers to avoid punches, but he stood toe to toe with DeMarco all night. "This is boxing, and sometime you're going to get hit," James said. "I'm hungry. Boxing is a short-lived career. I'm going for broke."
James ended most rounds raising his fist to the crowd, or tapping gloves with DeMarco.
In the early rounds, James gave DeMarco a black right eye. Late in the last round of the 10-round match, James backed DeMarco into a corner and threw rapid combinations, but DeMarco held his ground and the two traded blows as the final bell rang.
James thrust his fists into the air, then embraced DeMarco as the crowd roared.
The Armory's emergence as a lively boxing venue has complemented James' rise.
"Man, it's electric," James said. "There ain't not better place to fight but the Armory in Minnesota. I mean, you could tell, looking at it on TV across the nation. It's beautiful in here, and the energy is beautiful. This is it, man, the new hub for boxing."